Ever have a conversation with a coworker and walk away wondering what they thought of you? Science says we're always engaged in "meta-perception," or trying to figure out how other people see us. When we get a new job and meet our new colleagues, it's inevitable that we'll want to be liked. Fortunately, researchers suggest that people, like our coworkers, may actually enjoy our company more than we think.
The research, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, suggests that "accurately estimating how much a new conversation partner likes us — even though this a fundamental part of social life and something we have ample practice with — is a much more difficult task than we imagine." That's because we tend to assume people think less of us than they do.
The study's authors call it a "liking gap," which can "hinder our ability to develop new relationships," study coauthor Margaret S. Clark, the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology at Yale University, told Yale News. The researchers looks at various aspects of the liking gap in a series of five studies.
“We observed the liking gap as strangers got acquainted in the laboratory, as first-year college students got to know their dorm mates, and as formerly unacquainted members of the general public got to know each other during a personal development workshop," the researchers explained.
One study paired participants who had not yet met and tasked them with having five-minute conversations with ice-breaker questions. They then gauged how much they liked their conversation partner and how much they thought their conversation partner like them. On average, they liked their partner more than they thought their partner likes them, which is an estimation error. Video recordings of the conversations suggested that participants didn't even account for their partner's behavioral signals that indicated interest and enjoyment.
One of the other studies had participants reflecting on the conversations they'd had and, according to their ratings, they believed that the salient moments shaped their partner's thoughts about them were more negative than the moments that shaped their own thoughts about their conversation partenrs. And the other studies suggest that the liking gap emerges regardless of the length of the conversation — the liking gap sometimes persists for months, like among the study's participating college students sharing a dorm together.
"When it comes to social interaction and conversation, people are often hesitant, uncertain about the impression they're leaving on others, and overly critical of their own performance," the researchers reported. "In light of people's vast optimism in other domains, people's pessimism about their conversations is surprising."
While science suggests that we rate ourselves more highly than others, when other people are involved — like coworkers — we tend to be more self-critical. Of course, it's okay to want to make a good first impression, especially when it comes to the workplace. But worrying too much about what other people think, and wrongly assuming how they think, could negatively impact potential connections we'd otherwise make in the workplace.
"We're self-protectively pessimistic and do not want to assume the other likes us before we find out if that's really true," the researchers explained."As we ease into new neighborhood, build new friendships, or try to impress new colleagues, we need to know what other people think of us... Any systematic errors we make might have a big impact on our personal and professional lives."
AnnaMarie Houlis is a feminist, a freelance journalist and an adventure aficionado with an affinity for impulsive solo travel-the-world">travel. She spends her days writing about women’s empowerment from around the world. You can follow her work on her blog">blog, HerReport.org, and follow her journeys on Instagram @her_report,